Hawaii’s special treatment courts threatened by fiscal crisis
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
By the time she was 16, Christianna Maglinti, a high school dropout and runaway, had been arrested dozens of times, had been using crystal meth and was well on her way to becoming another inmate in Hawai'i's overcrowded prison system.
Then she was referred to Girls Court, an alternative Judiciary program that takes a more holistic approach to dealing with offenders. Like the 10 other specialized treatment courts in Hawai'i, this gender-specific one addresses the underlying issues — domestic abuse, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and the like — that often prompt troubled individuals to offend again and again, usually landing behind bars.
To try to stop that cycle, the specialty courts provide treatment to deal with the underlying issues, regular monitoring to keep the clients on track and swift sanctions if they violate the rules.
Today, Maglinti, 20, has her high school diploma, has been off drugs for more than two years, is employed by a nonprofit organization that helps mentally challenged adults and frequently talks to wayward girls about how she has turned her life around.
She credits Girls Court with playing a major role in that turnaround.
"They're really not just trying to punish you," said Maglinti, whose success story was highlighted recently in Chief Justice Ronald Moon's State of the Judiciary address. "They're trying to help you."
Like the rest of state government, however, that help is being squeezed by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
As a result of budget cuts, the 11 treatment courts, including those for adults with mental health issues and families with substance abuse problems, are handling fewer cases, providing less treatment and delaying more services, Judiciary officials say. At least one court is at risk of running out of treatment money by the end of the fiscal year, five have wait lists for accepting new clients, and O'ahu's Adult Drug Court has reduced its treatment capacity by nearly 20 percent.
During his address to the Legislature last month, Moon warned that more cuts could have a devastating effect on court operations, even hinting at the possibility of eliminating the alternative service-oriented programs altogether.
Because of cuts already imposed, the chief justice said, the O'ahu drug court reduced its treatment capacity to 130 clients, from 160, leaving 30 defendants on a wait list and likely headed for prison. Putting 30 more people into an already overcrowded prison system would cost the state $1.5 million annually, Moon said, compared with the roughly $877,000 budget for the O'ahu drug court for this fiscal year.
He framed his address by underscoring the successes of the treatment courts in substantially reducing the rate of recidivism among offenders.
Moon's speech highlighted the challenge facing state decision-makers amid the severe fiscal crisis.
One of the fundamental questions: Can the state afford to maintain these alternative programs, which have produced impressive results but reach relatively small numbers of clients, even as the Judiciary's core services have been reduced because of budget cuts?
The treatment courts represent nearly 4 percent — or more than $5 million — of the Judiciary's $139 million budget and handle several hundred cases each year, compared with the thousands that go through the regular system.
"I would hate to see this discontinued," said Public Defender Jack Tonaki. "Everyone is having to make tough choices."
The challenge is made all the more difficult, Tonaki and other advocates say, because the treatment courts have helped people stay out of prison, saving the state millions of dollars in incarceration costs and the much-harder-to-quantify social costs resulting from domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, juvenile delinquency and other problems that typically influence the offenders' behavior.
Yet the regular court system, the advocates say, is ill equipped to deal with these cases. Cutting funding to the alternative programs could save money in the short run but result in far greater costs to the state and society in the long term, advocates say.
"Obviously, in terrible times, everyone is constrained, and I would argue that money should come from other parts of the criminal justice system that are overused, like corrections," University of Hawai'i professor and criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind said in an e-mail. "I wouldn't support across-the-board cuts that tend to cripple small initiatives. We know that huge swaths of the current system are not functioning optimally, so they really need to have new ideas infused into the work they are currently doing."
The treatment courts deal mostly with nonviolent repeat offenders, many of whom had probation revoked one or more times. A review team that includes the client's attorney (usually a public defender), prosecutor, judge, case manager and others must recommend the defendant for the program, with the judge having the final say. Clients are referred to treatment services, such as counseling, based on their needs, appear before a judge at least monthly to review their progress and are rewarded for successes or quickly sanctioned for violations.
The programs often involve participation of family members, who are considered key to the offender's long-term rehabilitation. In Girls Court, for instance, a parent is required to attend each court session and participate in counseling and other court-ordered activities.
The idea behind the courts is that if the underlying problems contributing to the person's troubles aren't addressed, the person is likely to offend again and pass such behavior on to the next generation.
The alternative programs, most started within the past decade, have produced encouraging results.
The average recidivism rate among those who graduate from the specialty courts is 6 percent to 8 percent, compared with roughly 50 percent among those on general probation, said Dee Dee Letts, treatment court coordinator on O'ahu.
Among the first four groups who completed the Girls Court program since its inception in 2004, the number of reported runaways dropped 94 percent, law violations fell 84 percent and detention home admissions declined 66 percent, according to a December 2009 evaluation by Janet Davidson, a Chaminade University assistant professor of criminology.
When the girls did run away, the number of days spent on the run dropped 84 percent, Davidson's study found.
Girls Court recently was designated a best practice by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
It is established on the premise that girls enter the system for much different reasons than boys and need to be treated differently to break the cycle of repeated offenses.
Circuit Judge Karen Radius, who was instrumental in the establishment of Girls Court, one of the first of its kind in the nation, believes so passionately in the program that she continues to preside over it on a volunteer basis. Having retired from the bench at the end of 2009, Radius now spends about three days a week volunteering her time.
"I can't leave you guys," she told a group of girls and their families in a recent court session. "You're too important to me."
SUPPORT IS KEY
That kind of support was key to convincing Maglinti that the people associated with the court really wanted to help, she said. She initially resisted their overtures, reflecting a reluctance — fueled by the trauma in her life — to trust anyone.
Her father had died when she was 9. Her mother abused drugs. The family eventually became homeless, and Maglinti and her siblings were placed in foster homes by the state. Maglinti rebelled by repeatedly running away. She was physically abused on the streets and turned to drugs and fighting to cope with the pain.
Once in Girls Court, Maglinti said, she realized how her life had come undone by the wrong choices she made, and she began to trust that the people there were trying to help her.
"It kept giving me motivation to make the right choices," she said.
Establishing trust also was critical for Andre Stovall, a former University of Hawai'i basketball player on probation for a drug offense in the 1990s.
Stovall, 47, who suffers from major depression and has a history of drug abuse, said his willingness to open up to people interested in helping him has been key to his success in Mental Health Court.
Before starting the program nine months ago, Stovall had been in and out of prison for repeated probation violations, including continued drug use.
But during a recent court session, Judge Michael Wilson praised Stovall for being clean and sober the past nine months.
As a gallery of fellow Mental Health Court clients applauded, the judge gave Stovall a $20 gift card and a sobriety coin marking his success so far.
If Stovall keeps on track, he expects to graduate from the program by April 2011.
The main difference between Mental Health and regular court, he said, was that the latter didn't address the causes of his behavior problems.
"Mental Health Court has been a refreshing change," Stovall said. "It helps you break down barriers of trust. I now believe in the people in the program, from the judge to the bailiffs . They're like a separate family for me."
TREATMENT COURTS PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
The five main categories of Hawaii's specialty treatment courts, which provide a mix of judicial and treatment services to offenders. See below.